Yawned in Bars

Too much depression, not enough transcendence on another Cat Power covers album

Chan Marshall is a cougar. She fits the mold: a barfly, someone aging but not old, someone caught between two versions of herself—old and wise, young and dumb. Picture her there, her umpteenth cigarette dangling precariously from wire-thin fingers, stringy hair hanging down her face, rolling up on someone handsome, slurring. If you find this hard to imagine—which you probably should, given that our beloved Chan, Ms. Cat Power, the one we grew up on, that timid Georgia indie-rock chick whose voice is prone to cracking; given that that Chan does not, to our mind, smell like an old flannel or look like early-'90s Carrie Fisher—then this new album of mostly covers should help.

Start with her snaking, spooky take on "New York, New York," which takes the popular version's beaming optimism and puts an ironic spin on it: The languid keys and Marshall's stuporous drawl are more suggestive of Ratso Rizzo than Old Blue Eyes. This lived-in-bars mood persists. Hank Williams's "Ramblin' Man" gets a narcotic rendering driven by ghostly organ chords and a moaning slide guitar; Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" is heavier than a boxcar. George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing One for Me," is upbeat by comparison, with Marshall's Dirty Delta Blues Band digging in like the pros they are, but even it can't shake the depressive barroom vibe of the proceedings.

Sullenness is nothing new for Marshall, and since 2000's The Covers Record (and in concert long before that), she's been laying waste to the structure of other people's songs, pumping them full of her downcast charm to the point of their being unrecognizable. There's always been a thrill to that, and it's on offer here; but after all these years, it doesn't make for lasting songs you want to return to so much as sleight-of-hand tricks you need see only once.

At her most captivating when covering herself
Stefano Giovannini
At her most captivating when covering herself

Not to say maturity has been entirely unkind to Marshall—the production here, as on 2006's The Greatest, is remarkably intimate: You can practically smell the cigarettes fuming in the studio ashtrays. But also like The Greatest, Jukebox's few truly memorable moments—such as the shimmering "Silver Stallion," which takes the jaunty country-rock tune popularized by the Highwaymen and turns it into a late-night whisper, à la her version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"—are dwarfed by the merely adequate ones. The most captivating cover here isn't a cover at all: "Metal Heart" first appeared on 1998's Moon Pix, arguably Marshall's most clear-eyed expression of that mix of trepidation and intrepidity that once defined her music. On the original, Marshall's vocals are double-tracked, fluttering timorously between plucked guitar chords, and the song has a nervousness to it, simmering but never boiling. On this version, "Metal Heart" fits snugly amid the Billie Holiday and the Janis Joplin, having been transformed into another smoky ballad, with Marshall belting, "Metal heart, you're not worth a thing." The transformation is more touching than powerful: condemning someone to a "very sad, sad zoo" sounds silly here, forcing us to compare the naive Marshall of years gone by with this awkwardly grown-up version. You can hear in her voice that she remembers those days of naked, beguiling expression, even if she can't quite re-create them.

Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues play Terminal 5 on February 6, terminal5nyc.com.

 
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